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Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Inside the wild life of bitcoin bandits Heather Morgan and Ilya Lichtenstein

At the height of the pandemic in 2020, when she wasn’t teaching herself Russian, creating Salvador Dali-inspired art or recording rap songs about the excesses of Wall Street, Heather Morgan was very concerned about cybersecurity.

“Cybercriminals and fraudsters are taking advantage of this unexpected disruption, leading to a spike in scams and cybercrimes,” Morgan, an “entrepreneur,” wrote in a June 2020 column for Forbes. She added that she was particularly concerned about elderly victims being vulnerable to online scams.

“People are not always as they appear online,” she wrote.

Oh, the irony.

Morgan, 31, and her Russian-born husband, Ilya “Dutch” Lichtenstein, 34, now stand charged by the DOJ with trying to launder an astounding $4.5 billion in cryptocurrency. And the self-described “crocodile of Wall Street” is the gold-bomber-jacket-wearing poster child for cybercrime.

The couple were arrested at their Wall Street apartment on Feb. 8.
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Morgan and Lichtenstein were arrested at their high-rise Wall Street apartment Tuesday for allegedly attempting to launder Bitcoins that had been stolen from Hong Kong’s Bitfinex, one of the world’s largest virtual cryptocurrency exchanges, in 2016. It’s not clear if the couple was involved in the initial hacking that led to the Bitcoin theft.

The stolen cryptocurrency was allegedly transferred to a digital wallet controlled by Lichtenstein, who describes himself as a “technology entrepreneur, coder and investor” on his LinkedIn account. Morgan described herself variously as a “serial entrepreneur” and an “irreverent comedic rapper,” who goes by the moniker Razzlekhan.

By her own account, she is “basically a mix of Hunter S. Thompson and Diane Arbus with a sprinkle of Tom Green.”

The Razzlekhan website boasts that Morgan is “More fearless and more shameless than ever before, she’s taking on everyone from big software companies to health care to finance bros.” She’s also seen rapping on Wall Street while wearing dark glasses and a leopard-print scarf.

As a way to propose marriage to Morgan, Lichtenstein bought billboards for her Razzlekhan rap alter ego.
As a way to propose marriage to Morgan, Lichtenstein bought billboards for her Razzlekhan rap alter ego.
razzlekhan.com

The couple, who are still in custody, allegedly used several different money-laundering techniques, according to the complaint. Court papers claim that they set up accounts with fictitious identifies, moving the stolen currency “in a series of small amounts” which totaled thousands of transactions, in order to avoid detection.

They also allegedly spread funds in different virtual currency exchanges — a situation that sometimes drew suspicion and led to their accounts being frozen, prosecutors said in the federal criminal complaint.

Morgan and Lichtenstein spent the illegal proceeds on a $500 Walmart gift card, gold and NFTs, among other things, according to the criminal complaint. Prosecutors alleged the duo had a bag of cellphones labeled “burner phones” inside their apartment, and that Lichtenstein kept a file called “passport_ideas” on his computer.

Before their arrest, the savvy tech pair, who lived with a Bengal cat named Clarissa, appeared to be rising, moneyed stars. They lived in luxury buildings in San Francisco and New York. Rent in their Wall Street building begins at more than $5,000 for a studio, according to real estate listings.

The couple lived in a luxury high-rise apartment on Wall Street.
The couple lived in a luxury high-rise apartment on Wall Street with their cat.
Facebook

Maria Grineva, who worked with Lichtenstein in Silicon Valley, was shocked to hear about the arrests.

“I am shocked,” she told The Post. “He seemed to me a really honest person. I would never expect this.” 

When Morgan wasn’t rapping or trying her hand at a designer clothing line based on North African influences, she contributed columns to Inc. and Forbes, many of them based on her personal experience as a young entrepreneur. In one article she wrote about how women were far better negotiators than men.

“In my early twenties (and even late teens), I out-negotiated many experienced businessmen who were at least twice my age,” she wrote. “I recall one deal where my competitor was a loud and obnoxious ‘bro’ who had an overpowering ‘frat boy’ personality. However, he was actually very off-putting to the decision-maker, who was much more of an intellectual and an introvert.”  

Morgan grew up in rural Northern California.
Morgan grew up in rural Northern California.
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Heather Rhiannon Morgan was born on May 28, 1990, in Ontario, Oregon, and grew up in Tehama, a city of just over 400 people in rural Northern California, where her parents’ address is listed as a post office box, according to public records and Morgan’s arrest warrant.

“I don’t want to speak to you right now,” said her mother, Gale Morgan, when reached by The Post.

Morgan grew up listening to rap, and dreamed of being a rap star but had a high-pitched voice and a serious speech impediment as a child. She spent her junior high school years going to a speech therapist.

“My entire life I’ve been self-conscious of my voice,” she wrote in a Forbes column two years ago about how she decided to become a rapper to overcome some of her feelings of self-consciousness.

Morgan has also tried her hand at designing a clothing line based on Northern African influences.
Morgan has also tried her hand at designing a clothing line based on Northern African influences.
YouTube

“I also got braces at age twelve and had to wear them until college,” she continued. “My teeth were so unusually screwed up that I’m probably a case study in several medical textbooks.”

Eager to leave her small-town surroundings, Morgan took off for Japan alone at 19, she wrote. A year later, she moved to the Turkish capital, Ankara, where she claimed she learned her most valuable negotiating skills by watching rug merchants and shop owners in the souks.

She attended Bilkent University in the city, where she “simultaneously completed economic research on Turkish international monetary policy and trade,” according to her LinkedIn profile. Morgan graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Davis, with a degree in economics and international relations in 2011. She also attended the American University in Cairo where she studied for a graduate degree.

“Part of my strategy always involves creating a sense of ‘reciprocity,’” she wrote in another Forbes column, about why women often make better negotiators than men. “In other words, if you give someone a really thoughtful present, they’re way more likely to do business with you.” 

Morgan claims that companies she started to create personalized email templates have generated millions of dollars.
Morgan claims that companies she started to create personalized email templates have generated millions.
AFP via Getty Images

By 23, Morgan discovered that she was so good at selling that she decided to become an entrepreneur, setting up her own companies that helped clients create “highly personalized email templates … utilizing game theory, data science and tested copywriting best practices,” according to her LinkedIn account. The companies soon generated “millions,” she has said.

Morgan likely met Lichtenstein in San Francisco in 2014, when he became an “advisor” to SalesFolk, the company Morgan started in 2009. Public records show them sharing an apartment at a luxury high-rise in the city in 2017.

The following year was “one of the best and worst years of my life,” wrote Morgan in one of her Forbes columns. “Within a few weeks, I had legal threats, learned that dishonest employees were fudging numbers, and people I once deeply respected were trying to bully and shame me into removing content I had published that I firmly believed the public needed to see.”

Things grew worse when her parents were diagnosed with cancer a week apart.

Lichtenstein was apparently not always patient with his wife's rap game.
Lichtenstein was apparently not always patient with his wife’s rap game.
Instagram/heatherreyhan

“Things really sucked,” she wrote. But a year later, in 2019, she was celebrating her engagement to her longtime boyfriend, who goes by the nickname Dutch.

Lichtenstein was born in Rostov, a port city in Russia, in 1987, according to his arrest warrant, although it’s not clear when he moved to the US with his family.

His father, Yevgeny Lichtenstein, originally Likhtenshteyn, works as a realtor in Chicago, according to public records.

Lichtenstein grew up in Glenview, Ill., and attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison where he graduated with a BA in psychology in 2010, according to LinkedIn. After college, he left for San Francisco and cofounded MixRank, “a customer discovery platform” that helped sales teams scope out new markets and customers.

In this courtroom sketch, attorney Sam Enzer, center, sits between Morgan, left, and Lichtenstein, in federal court, Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022, in New York.
In this courtroom sketch, attorney Sam Enzer sits between Morgan and Lichtenstein in federal court on Feb. 8.
AP

After his sojourn in San Francisco, Lichtenstein and Morgan moved to Manhattan where they rented an apartment near the High Line before moving to Wall Street

Lichtenstein proposed to Morgan in June 2019. “I got engaged to my best friend and the woman of my dreams!” he has said, adding that he researched for months how to go about doing it. He decided to fill New York City with billboards and posters promoting Morgan’s rapper alter ego.

“I knew I had to do something memorable that would really show how much I love and value the real Heather, not just the badass entrepreneur but also the ultra-weird creative genius,” he wrote. “At the same time, knowing Heather, she would want any proposal to be pragmatic and also add business value.”

But even Lichtenstein seemed to have little time for Morgan’s increasingly bizarre antics. He strikes the opening chord on her latest rap video, “Moon and Stars.”

“I love you, I support you, but I do not want to be involved,” he declares. And in the middle of the song he proclaims, “Hey, Heather, I’m not amused.”

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